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Hilber Psychological Services

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Emotions of Children on the Autism Spectrum

Emotions of children on the autism spectrum are often hard to comprehend. It is important to help children not only identify an emotion, but also connect that emotion to a specific event. According to Alice Kassotaki, speech language pathologist MSc, BSc, there are four steps to identifying emotions.

  • -Step 1: Definition of the child’s emotion: “Nick, you look scared”.
  • -Step 2: Connection of the emotion while it is being expressed: “Maybe you are scared because this is a new game”.  
  • -Step 3: Confirmation that it is normal to have such an emotion: “It makes sense to be scared when you try something new for the first time”.
  • -Step 4: Reassurance: “Let me help you. It will be easier and less scary if we do it together”.  

There are many simple games that can be played to help children identify emotions. Mirroring emotions and having children guess how you are feeling is a great way to have them practice recognizing emotions. One a child has accomplished this step, they will later learn how other people think, and then eventually be able to connect how their feeling in regard to what they are doing.

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Children on the autism spectrum may have difficulties displaying empathy. However, during the transition period from early childhood to preschool age, children are able to gain some skills. For example:

  • verbal and nom-verbal characterization of the emotional expressions
  • use of emotional language to describe personal emotional experiences and to clarify others’ emotional experiences
  • development of knowledge about the rules of emotional expression and how various emotions can occur at the same time
  • gradual understanding of social emotions such as guilt

It is an important first step to understand one’s own emotions. Once this is achieved, identifying, understanding, and reacting to others’ emotions is crucial to building strong social skills. Misunderstanding social ques, such as non-verbal signs, can lead to miscommunication. A child may unknowingly misbehave because of the lack of understanding. This can often be avoided by teaching children specific emotions and reactions in the clearest way possible.

At a young age, 4 to 6, most children are able to understand the main emotions: joy, sadness, anger, and fear (think of the Disney movie, Inside Out). More complex emotions, such as pride, guilt, and shame, must be learned through the main emotions. Here are 7 ways to help children understand the complex emotions:

1.     Attention approach: some children must be taught to pay attention to social information. When you notice a child feeling a certain emotion, such as anger, state their emotion and why they are feeling that way while continuing to show nonverbal signals, such as crossed arms and stern voice.

2.     Naming the emotions: As a child begins to pay attention to social information, teach them the names of the emotions, starting with the main emotions. Using pictures of familiar faces with obvious emotions can help the child relate the name to the understanding of the emotion.

3.     Designation emotions: Once a child is able to look at a frown and identify that that person is sad, teach them how to designate each emotion. Ask questions such as “How does he feel?” to be able to designate different emotions

4.     Actions based on emotions: Now that the child is able to understand and designate each emotion, help them react based on emotions. Rather than looking at pictures, show them real life examples of emotion.

5.     Role-playing: Give the child different scenarios of receiving ice cream and feeling happy or losing a toy and feeling sad, allowing them to role-play and further identification and expression of emotions.

6.     Modeling (filming): When watching a movie or television show, point out characters’ emotions that the child will be able to relate to.

7.     Games and books: Playing board games and reading books are also great ways to help the child learn about others’ emotions in different situations. This is a way to turn learning into an interactive activity.

While this information is geared towards individuals on the autism spectrum, this same information about identifying and understanding emotions can be used to all children. 

 Contact us for more information on children on the autism spectrum, learning and expressing emotions, or for help with children who are struggling.

~Written by Allison Parker and Tanya L. Hilber, PsyD

Reference: Kassotaki, Alice. (2017). “Emotions of Children on the Autism Spectrum.” Upbility.